Tuesday Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had his first reported telephone conversation with his Iranian counterpart President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Their conversation was a sign of the rising intimacy in Egyptian-Iranian relations in the wake of November's US National Intelligence Estimate on Iran's nuclear weapons program. According to media reports, the two men discussed the situation in Gaza.
Their conversation brought immediate results. Wednesday Mubarak allowed Hamas to take control of the international border between Egypt and Gaza. Hundreds of thousands of Gazans streamed across the border. Mubarak maintained his faith with Ahmadinejad even after the US began demanding Wednesday afternoon that he reassert Egyptian control over the border. Wednesday evening Mubarak said that the border would remain open.
Wednesday's border takeover by Hamas was but the latest escalation of the Palestinian campaign for control over the international border. This campaign has been ongoing since Israel withdrew in 2005 and was sharply escalated after Hamas seized control over Gaza last June.
Many claim that Hamas's aim of attaching Gaza to the rest of the Arab world by opening its border with Egypt is good for Israel because it allows Israel to disengage completely from Gaza. And there is some truth to this claim. With an open border with Egypt, Gazans will be far less dependent on Israel. To a degree this may help Israel to ease international pressure on it to continue to support Gaza by providing its Hamas-supporting population with electricity, fuel, food and employment opportunities.
But that is not the main significance of the move. Supported and directed by Iran and Syria, Hamas is uninterested in maintaining ties with Israel. Its short term goals are to end its diplomatic isolation in the West, and to force Fatah to accept its control over Gaza and reinstate open negotiations towards the reestablishment of a unity government between Fatah and Hamas. Its medium term goals involve extending its control over Gaza to Judea and Samaria and then unifying the west and east banks of the Jordan River by overwhelming the border with Jordan in much the same way it took control over the border with Gaza.
For its part, in the lead-up to the Hamas border takeover on Wednesday and in its aftermath, Fatah has shown itself to be wholly incapable of influencing events either in Gaza or in Judea and Samaria. It has been unable, despite its massive financial resources, to in any way degrade Hamas's popularity in Gaza. It has been unable to keep its own forces in Gaza from integrating with Hamas. It has been unable to stem Hamas's rising popularity in Judea and Samaria.
Hamas's border takeover was synchronized to take place at the same time as Hamas leaders were meeting with their Palestinian and Lebanese jihadist counterparts at an anti-peace conference in Damascus. The conference, held under Syrian and Iranian sponsorship, was supposed to be held at the same time as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's peace conference at Annapolis. But since the State Department decided to invite Syria to attend that conference, Damascus decided to delay its anti-peace conference until this week. Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas went to Syria in recent weeks to beg Syrian President Bashar Assad to cancel the conclave, organized to demonstrate Fatah's weakness and unpopularity, but his appeals failed.
In this regard, it also bears noting that Fatah's response to the erosion of its power has been to escalate its support for jihad. Its television and radio broadcasts are indistinguishable from Hamas's. Its security forces in Judea and Samaria actively engage in terrorism against Israel. Its residual forces in Gaza are full partners in the rocket and mortar attacks on the Western Negev.
THE STRATEGIC significance of Hamas's border war clearly escaped the attention of Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni. In her address before the Herzliya Conference on Tuesday, Livni spoke as if Hamas can simply be wished away. The day before Egypt surrendered control over its border to Hamas, Livni claimed that in the Arab world, "Nobody wants to see Hamas succeed."
Livni then went on to justify the negotiations she is holding with Fatah's Ahmed Qurei towards an Israeli handover of Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem, claiming that by negotiating massive Israeli land giveaways she is preventing the Palestinian conflict with Israel from turning into a religious conflict. She also claimed separately that Israel's conflict with Iran is not related to its conflict with the Palestinians.
All of Livni's statements are demonstrably false. Discussing the surrender of Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem with Fatah does not weaken Hamas. It strengthens Hamas. Either the discussions will succeed, in which case Hamas will seize control over Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem from Fatah the minute that Israel withdraws, or the talks will fail, in which case Hamas will say it just goes to show that there is nothing to talk with Israel about. It will then reunify its forces with Fatah and increase its subversion of Israel's Arab citizens. In all cases, Hamas, with its clear vision of Israel replaced by an Islamic caliphate, comes out the winner.
Livni's assertion that Iran is unconnected to the Palestinians is similarly ridiculous. Livni was a member of Ariel Sharon's government in January 2002 when Israeli naval commandos seized the Iranian cargo ship Karine A in the Red Sea. That was a ship purchased by Fatah, filled with Iranian weapons en route to Fatah forces. It was commanded by Fatah officers and manned by Fatah sailors. Livni was there when the decision was made to use Fatah's clear connections to Iran as a reason for not conducting negotiations with the group.
And of course, Iran today is Hamas's primary sponsor. And its sponsorship of Hamas is facilitating Iran's bid to secure Arab support for its war against Israel and the US. So Livni's contention that Iran is unrelated to the Palestinians is both ridiculous and dangerous.
Livni's championing of Fatah and continued Israeli territorial surrenders to the Palestinians is identical to her boss Ehud Olmert's. So too, her dismissive treatment of the threat arising from Hamas's continued control over Gaza, like her dismissive treatment of Hizbullah's reinforcement in Lebanon and the importance of the US's retreat from strategic rationality towards Iran in the wake of the NIE, is no different from Olmert's.
IT IS important to note this fact because a week before the publication of the Winograd Committee's final report on the Second Lebanon War, Olmert's blood is in the water. The publication this week of an open letter by 50 reserve company commanders essentially demanding that Olmert resign after the report is released is a preview of the public calls for his departure from office that will sweep the country starting January 31.
While the leaders of the radical Left in Peace Now, Meretz, and Haaretz are supporting Olmert's bid to remain in office and launching smear campaigns against all forces rising against him, the fact is that even his most ardent supporters know that it will be difficult to protect Olmert from the public after the Winograd Report is published. Consequently, leading figures on the Left, in Labor and Kadima are seeking ways to force Olmert out of office and replace him with Livni.
Livni escaped the public's wrath over the consequences of the failed 2006 war with Hizbullah. During the war she took a backseat to Olmert and then defense minister Amir Peretz, rarely speaking publicly. Yet from the outset of the war Livni led the diplomatic campaign for a cease-fire. And her campaign was flawed and failed – no less, and indeed more than the military campaign.
Livni began her diplomatic machinations with two inco
rrect assumptions. First, she assumed that Israel could not defeat Hizbullah militarily. As a result, from the very beginning she opposed any escalation of Israel's campaign in Lebanon. Second, she believed that the international community would agree to fight Hizbullah for Israel. As a result she worked hard to get a Chapter VII – that is legally binding – UN Security Council resolution setting up such a force.
The government's refusal to authorize a timely ground assault in Lebanon ensured that Israel would not defeat Hizbullah. Livni's belief that the international community would be interested in fighting Hizbullah led to Israel becoming the main champion of UNIFIL which both before and since the war has acted as a shield for Hizbullah against Israel.
And yet, Livni's diplomatic skills couldn't even secure her own limited and incorrect goal of securing a binding, strong international force in south Lebanon. In his book, Surrender is not an Option, former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton wrote that on the eve of the Security Council vote on Resolution 1701, which set the terms of the cease-fire, Livni complained to Rice, "You've given away the cease-fire, you've given away Chapter VII, you've given away Shaba Farms, now tell us why we should sign on to the resolution?"
But of course, when the next day the resolution passed unanimously in the Security Council, Livni was quick to tout it as a strategic success. And ever since, in spite of the fact that under 1701 Hizbullah has rearmed and reasserted its control over south Lebanon; paralyzed the Lebanese government; expanded its influence over the Lebanese military and intimidated UNIFIL, Livni continues to uphold the resolution as proof of her own competence. And she has yet to be called on this.
In his own speech on Wednesday at Herzliya, Olmert tried to silence critics of his government's incompetent response to the Hamas takeover of Gaza. Olmert argued "If the quiet prevailing in the North would prevail today in the southern part of the country, would we be occupied with a daily counting of the number of rockets and missiles which would be hoarded there in storerooms?"
That is, in Olmert's view, the nature of both Hizbullah and Hamas, their ties with Iran and Syria, and their burgeoning arsenals are unimportant. The only thing that matters is if they are presently shooting at Israel. And Livni's view is just as outrageous.
In her speech on Thursday at Davos, Livni proclaimed that the threat Iran poses to global security stems not from its nuclear weapons program and its support for terrorism but from its opposition to her negotiations with Qurei. Livni was quoted as remarking, "Iran is a global threat which threatens the peace process."
The Olmert-Livni government's ineptitude has brought about a situation where Israel is threatened by Iranian proxies on three borders. Its diplomatic fumbling of Iran's nuclear program has led to a situation where Israel finds itself alone against Iran's Manhattan Project. Its diplomatic fumbling of Hamas's takeover of Gaza has led to a willingness of ever-widening circles of Western diplomats and policymakers to recognize the jihadist movement as a legitimate player in the region. Its diplomatic failures during the war with Hizbullah enabled Hizbullah to emerge from the war strengthened diplomatically and positioned to reignite the war whenever Iran orders it to do so.
Next week's publication of the Winograd Committee's report has the potential to finally end Olmert's premiership. But if the post-Winograd political reshuffle is limited to replacing Olmert with Livni, Israel will be no better off.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.